In 1988, Tom Cruise talked to Reba Merrill about his role in Barry Levinson’s hit movie “Rain Man”

By on April 17, 2018


In 1988, actor Tom Cruise — still on the brink of superstardom at age 26 even though he’d already appeared in movies like Top Gun (1986) and Risky Business (1983) — sat down to talk to entertainment journalist Reba Merrill about his role in Barry Levinson’s hit movie, Rain Man.

We no longer have this title on Night Flight Plus, but read on anyway.


Cruise told Merrill — author of Nearly Famous: Tales from the Hollywood Trenches — how he had to hitchhike to his parents home in New Jersey after his Taps audition in NYC:

“… I’d been living in New York, I guess, a year and half or something — and I was just broke. I’d lost my job bussing tables, you know, a couple of weeks before and I was looking for a another job, and I was unloading trucks at this place, and they were laying, you know, I got laid off there, and I was just… “

“So I went to see my family for the weekend. I hitchhiked from New York City, and at this time they were living in Jersey, so I hitchhiked into Jersey, and… I just walked out of the audition for Taps.”


Reba Merrill in 1988, interviewing Tom Cruise

“… I remember walking up the driveway and my mother looked through the curtains, and she was on the phone, and she was, kinda, a little excited, so I walked in the back of the house and I walked in and she was kind of holding her breath and she says ‘You know, there’s a phone call for you,’ that’s kind of how she said it.”

“I got on the phone and, you know, they said, ‘Look, you know, you’re going to be doing this film Taps, and it’s nine weeks of work or something like that, and you’re going to be getting paid $850 dollars a week,’ and, you know, I just couldn’t believe it. I just put down the phone and I was jumping up and down.”


In Rain Man, Tom Cruise plays L.A.-based luxury car salesman Charlie Babbitt, who discovers after his wealthy father has died that instead of getting the inheritance he’s been expecting — and desperately needs to save his bankruptcy-bound auto business — he’s been given his old man’s cream-colored 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible and and some of his prize-winning rose bushes.

Charlie’s father has given $3 million to a mysterious trust account which Charlie learns will benefit a mental institution in Cincinnati, and after he pays them a visit he learns the institution is where his long-lost older brother Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), who has severe autism, has been living for more than twenty years.


The movie’s title comes from Charlie’s early childhood, when he was unable to pronounce Raymond’s name, calling him “Rain Man” instead.

Cruise’s Charlie — a self-centered, foul-mouthed “greed is good” yuppie, similar to the materialistic high-roller he played in Risky Business — abducts Raymond from the institution, and they embark on a top-down road trip across America.

After Charlie learns about Raymond’s incredible math skills, they stop in Las Vegas to try their luck at the casino gaming tables.

Charlie schemes to have Raymond count cards and place bets that will make them both rich, but what he actually learns is that re-kindling his relationship with his older brother proves more valuable to him than all the money in the world.


Cruise — who wasn’t considered a “serious” Hollywood actor at the time — wasn’t the first choice to play the fast-talking con man Charlie (Hoffman had originally wanted Jack Nicholson, and then Bill Murray, for the role).

Hoffman and Cruise already lived beside each other in Malibu’s Broad Beach neighborhood, a left-coast haven for Hollywood A-listers (Cruise and then-wife Mimi Rogers had moved there in September of ’87, four months after getting married).


Hoffman had actually moved to Broad Beach to live near and work with another neighbor, Steven Spielberg, who was originally attached to direct Rain Man (after original director Martin Brest had left the project, due to script issues).

Spielberg worked with screenwriter Ron Bass to re-write the original script by Barry Morrow, who’d based Raymond on an autistic savant, Kim Peek, that he’d met in 1984 (Peek actually had FG Syndrome, not autism).


Levinson (center) played a doctor (uncredited) in Rain Man

Spielberg ultimately left to begin work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and then Sydney Pollack stepped in, but he, too, also departed over Rain Man‘s script issues.
Barry Levinson — who’d read an earlier version of the screenplay — became interested in the project again, and he and Bass re-wrote the script a week before a planned WGA writer’s strike began.


Rain Man provided the right mix of tears and laughs for a perfectly-timed Christmas release, arriving in theaters on December 16, 1988.

It ultimately became the year’s highest-grossing movie, earning over $172 million (In addition to his $5 million fee, Cruise also got a share of the film’s final profits).


Mark Johnson (producer), Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman and Barry Levinson at the Academy Awards, March 1989

Rain Man won four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Dustin Hoffman won for Best Actor — but Cruise wasn’t even nominated for what was one his most memorable movie roles during his decades-long career.

Cruise was, however, nominated for a Worst Actor Razzie for playing bartender Brian Flanagan in his other 1988 film, Cocktail, which won the 1989 “Razzie” for Worst Film at the 9th Golden Raspberry Awards.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.